Declining bee numbers sparks multi million pound investigation


By Christine Lavelle

BEEKEEPERS have welcomed a probe into why numbers of the garden insect have been plummeting in recent years.

Numbers have plunged by as much as 15 per cent over the last two years with fears that the fall could impact on the pollination of plants.

Experts estimate the commercial value of the pollination for producing food at as much as £200m every year.

Now the drop has triggered a £1.8 million research project at the University of Dundee’s Centre for Neuroscience.

Over the next three years scientists at the university are to investigate whether large quantities of pesticides are affecting bees’ brains.

Alan Teale, president of the Scottish Beekeepers Association said that the drop in numbers had been a “big worry” in Scotland.

He said said: “This project is welcomed among many beekeepers in Scotland, because the problem of loss in pollination is a big worry.

“The knock-on effects could be very serious as many fruits rely on bees to pollinate in early spring, as well as different species of plants and flowers, which could die out as a result – having a nightmare effect on agriculture.”

Mr Teale said bees have a much better survival rate if they are being cared for by keepers.

He said: “It is becoming more and more important that people keep bees, because those living in the wild will almost certainly continue to disappear as they are not being looked after.

“Bees living around towns and cities tend to do better than those in the countryside because there are always gardens and maintained parks.”

Funding for the project comes from the Insect Pollinators Initiative and is part of a £10m package being shared between nine projects, announced in conjunction with National Insect Week.

It is believed the impairment of brain function through the use of pesticides could be to blame for the declining number of bees in the UK.

Dundee’s study will examine whether the use of pesticides is harming brain activity in bees, which could be speeding up their demise.

Dr Chris Connelly, leading the project with colleague Dr Jenni Harvey, said: “If bees were to die out, then our food security would be seriously compromised.

“We rely exclusively on bees to pollinate such a large number of our staple foods and the only alternative, which is hand pollination, is not really an option.”

Dr Connelly said pesticides used in isolation do not kill bees, but chronic exposure may be affecting brain function by reducing their memory, navigation and communication skills.

The Dundee team will work closely with colleagues at the University of Newcastle, the Royal Holloway Hospital in London, and University College London to investigate the potential damaging effects of such agents on bee performance.

They will conduct a three year survey to correlate the impact of environmental chemicals to colony performance and investigate if patterns of environmental risk factors support the data.